Music has always been a powerful tool of expression as well as being able to bring people together, especially in times of oppression.
During the civil rights movement, African American singers and musicians collaborated to bring songs to the activists. In the forms of gospels, protest songs or topical songs on racism, violence and injustice. The music was for all those involved in the movement, black and white, to give strength and hope in their fight for equality and justice. The songs and lyrics were to motivate them through long marches, for psychological strength against harassment and brutality, and to grieve the loss of life. There were songs for every mood. These freedom songs were described by Martin Luther King as "the soul of the movement".
We Shall Over Come, a gospel song, became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
There has been a lot of information shared over the past few days and it feels like the world is far too slowly, starting to wake up - we hope this to be true but know there is still a long way to go.
A reminder that we, white people, have had, is that we have been given SO much beauty from black culture and we take so much from it too. Our life would be very different and devastatingly awful if it was filled with all white people.
Personally, one of my biggest loves from black culture is the music. It is powerful. It has soul. It has something to say. It has changed the music industry in ways we are completely unaware of because many times we wrapped it back up in a white package and called it revolutionary.
Do you know where Rock n Roll started?
Do you know The Beatles? Elvis Presley? The Rolling Stones? All amazing and very talented and some of our favourite musicians.
Do you know none of them would have written countless number 1s, countless household songs or countless world renowned records without the music that came from the black community including the greats like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Brenston, BB King, Howlin' Wolf...the list goes on.
The Beatles with Fats Domino. Fats Domino was a huge inspiration for The Beatles and Domino became a huge fan of The Beatles.
In the deep Mississippi Delta in the 1800s, during slavery and post slavery when working conditions were still horrendous, work songs would be sung from the workers in the fields to overcome their daily struggles (music again being used to bring a community together). They would then go to church and sing gospel songs. These songs of life's hardships developed overtime to become the Blues. Most Blues musicians during that time were work farmers through the day and would perform at the Juke Joints by night. The lyrics of blues were very real and very raw. Blues musicians would then later travel to the northern states of the USA, in hopes of escaping the racism of the deep south and would mix their musical style with the music from the different regions which would then go on to influence a huge variety of genres, leading to places like Chicago where the likes of Howlin' Wolf would take Blues songs and turn them into Rock 'n Roll. In fact, it has been questioned, is Blues music the Mother of all modern music?
One of the contenders for the first Rock 'n Roll record is The Fat Man by one of New Orleans Rock 'n Roll pioneers, Fats Domino. Whilst every public place was in segregation, white people started showing up at shows. Very quickly they started dancing and mixing with the black people and this spread through the deep south! Rock 'n Roll music was heavily criticised and blamed for the cause of integration, but Fats Domino just wanted to see people happy and spread love.
There are a number of other contenders for the first Rock 'n Roll record but I feel one thing is for sure, during times of segregation, music really brought black and white people together.
In 1950, a time where radio stations were race oriented, the release of an all 45 rpm vinyl record jukebox made the jukebox a very popular household item. The jukebox is a very important part of the integration of music. 'Black music' was not being played on white radio stations and therefore record label bosses would mix the black artists records into the juke boxes to get them heard by the masses and to test the music in the white communities. The music was loved. With the baby boomers becoming older and awakening to the world around them, they started to listen more and more to the rock 'n roll music, started dressing differently and started to rebel against a world of the American dream perfection. In the black community, the younger generation were ready for music with a new sound, that spoke of their experiences and undoubtedly made them dance. It was the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.
This is not to say everyone approved of the integration of music. Rock 'n Roll was branded the "devil's music" across a lot of the white community and some of the black community felt a lot of their songs were being adapted to appeal to a white audience.
A mixed group of rock n rollers in the 1950s at a show at El Monte. This photo features on the front of Art Laboe's compilation album of songs they would play at the venue. This inspired Frank Zappa and Ray Collins "Memories of El Monte".
Whilst I have been signing many petitions, talking to friends and family, reading reports and educational pieces, watching educational videos, listening to the experiences of racism within our country, I have also listened to a lot of music.
Songs I have grown up to, but all of a sudden sound so different. I have listened to the pain in the voices of black musical icons, in songs written and released pre, throughout and after the civil rights movement. Have we really been listening? If you are white, like me, you may have never really understood the depth of the lyrics and words or never really imagined what was felt during the time as they wrote and sang these songs. And although you can hear the pain, and you may be questioning what you believed to have known and asking yourself how much has really changed…you can also hear hope and a strong belief that change is about to come. Some of these songs are 50+ years old and it saddens me that it feels like we still have a long way to go and there needs to be action. Current artists and musicians such as Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Michael Kiwanuka, and Leon Bridges are still expressing the same messages and calling out for the world to awaken from oppression through lyrics and video.
I read a story yesterday about a woman Jamila Jones. Her story really resonated with me and emphasised what I was trying to explain about music.
"Jamila Jones grew up in Alabama and sang professionally as a teenager with the Montgomery Gospel Trio and the Harambee Singers. In 1958, she came to the Highlander Folk School for nonviolent activist training. As Jones recalls in her interview, Highlander was raided by the police, who shut off all the lights in the building. She found the strength to sing out into the darkness, adding a new verse, “We are not afraid,” to the song, “We Shall Overcome.” Jones explains, “And we got louder and louder with singing that verse, until one of the policemen came and he said to me, “If you have to sing,” and he was actually shaking, “do you have to sing so loud?” And I could not believe it. Here these people had all the guns, the billy clubs, the power, we thought. And he was asking me, with a shake, if I would not sing so loud. And it was that time that I really understood the power of our music.”
I have already seen powerful videos of communities coming together to make their voices heard through song during the protests that are currently taking place for the justice in the murder by police officers of George Floyd and many other black men and women. And I know there are many chants and songs being made at this time to unite people and give hope and strength to continue the fight.
I know the history of the music goes a lot further and deeper than I could ever possibly know or put into words but I hope this makes you think a little deeper about what you are listening too, as well as gives you hope for a equal and brighter future. If you have been out protesting or if you are sat at home feeling exhausted, anxious and heart broken, I hope music can help you in some way.
Throughout this week we would like to share some of these songs with you and have you join us in listening as we continue the fight for justice. These will be posted on our Instagram page so please keep tuned there.
The first song I’d like to start with, due to the hopefulness and promise it portrays, is I’ll Take You There - The Staple Singers, 1972. Written shortly after the civil rights movement, but during a time where there was still not true equality, where there was still hope for a better future, much like today. The song is describing a heaven. The call and response style of the song, which was a style heard in the work songs throughout the fields, is a key lyrical structure taken and transitioned into the Blues. The call and response style signifies solidarity and togetherness, something that is also seen throughout history in protest chants.
Music is powerful.